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French fest fears

Organizers may halt Avignon due to strikes

PARIS — Avignon Festival organizers were due to hold a crisis meeting today to discuss possibly scrapping the prestigious three-week event as a nationwide showbiz workers strike blacked out the two opening-night performances Tuesday.

An array of arts events was hit the same day. In Paris, picketers tried to prevent trucks loaded with the Rolling Stones’ stage gear from entering the 60,000-seat Stade de France sports stadium, while Tour de France race leaders had to slow down as demonstrators crowded the route.

However, it is France’s summer arts events — the strikers’ main target — that are feeling the cultural blackout most keenly.

The annual Avignon theater fest draws 100,000 visitors and is a vital contributor to the local economy.

Organizers were forced to reimburse 2,500 tickets to the opening events as thesps walked out to join an estimated 15,000 demonstrators on the streets of the southern French town. They were protesting government reforms of the showbiz industry’s generous welfare system, recently approved by bosses and some unions.

Some protesters made angry calls for the resignation of Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon.

‘Measures will kill culture’

“This isn’t just about a profession, these measures will kill culture in France,” union rep Jean Marc Bonillo, one of the protesters, told Daily Variety.

Aillagon had earlier pleaded with strikers to spare France’s summer fests in exchange for a fresh round of negotiations. In a radio interview, the minister said, “Every time a festival is canceled the fallout is appalling, and their futures are often compromised. I have gone as far as I can go. I’ve tried to take the sting out of this bitter dispute.”

But his words fell on deaf ears as majority unions Tuesday walked out of a “last chance” four-hour meeting.

Under the proposals, actors, stagehands and other showbiz workers would have to increase the number of hours they work in order to receive unemployment benefits. Currently, actors must work 507 hours in 12 months to be entitled to a year’s benefits. Under the new plans, due to start in October, they will have to work 507 hours over 10½ months to earn eight months of benefits.

The government said reform is necessary because of a growing deficit between contributions paid into the scheme by the profession and benefits paid out. That gap cost the state the equivalent of $955 million, up 25% in two years.

The government also wants to tackle widespread abuse of the current system.

But showbiz workers argue the reforms would further impoverish those at the bottom of the industry ladder.

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